The Grammarphobia Blog

How well is wellness?

Q: Is “wellness” a real word or just another cutesy whatever?

A: Yes, “wellness” is a real word, though quite a few people (perhaps including you) think it’s a not-so-cutesy whatever.

When the noun entered English in the 1600s (yes, hundreds of years ago), it meant the “state of being well or in good health,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

However, the status of the word has been a bit iffy from the beginning.

Although it was formed, like “illness,” by adding the suffix “-ness” to an adjective, the OED describes “wellness” as “rather a nonce-wd. than of settled status like illness.” (A nonce word is one that’s made up for a specific occasion but not expected to last.)

The dictionary’s earliest published reference is from a 1654 entry in the diary of Sir Archibald Johnston, Lord Wariston: “I … blessed God … for my daughter’s wealnesse.”

The first citation with the modern spelling is from a letter, written around 1655, by Dorothy Osborne to her husband, Sir William Temple: “You … never send me any of the new phrases of the town. … Pray what is meant by wellness and unwellness?”

The OED has written examples from the mid-1600s until the early 1900s of “wellness” used in the sense of good health. But the word seems to have fallen out of favor in the first half of the 20th century.

In the 1950s, Halbert L. Dunn, chief of the National Office of Vital Statistics, resurrected “wellness” in a new sense: health care intended to prevent illness rather than cure it, according to the linguist Ben Zimmer.

In an On Language column in the New York Times Magazine two years ago, Zimmer described the revival of “wellness” in its new garb:

Dunn wrote a series of papers and collected them in a 1961 book, High-Level Wellness, but his views didn’t catch on until a follower, John W. Travis, opened the Wellness Resource Center in Mill Valley, Calif., in 1975.

The center and its concept of wellness got national attention when it was featured in the April 1976 issue of Prevention magazine and a Dan Rather segment on 60 Minutes in 1979.

Zimmer notes that language commentators belittled the new usage at first. In 1988, for example, 68 percent of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language disapproved of it, and a critical note was included in the 1992 edition.

“But carping over wellness faded away in the ’90s as the term gained a foothold in everyday use,” Zimmer writes, adding that American Heritage dropped the usage note in its 2000 edition.

Like it or not, the word “wellness” is alive and well today.

“A word that once sounded strange and unnecessary, even to its original boosters, has become tacitly accepted as part of our lexicon of health,” Zimmer writes. “Well, well, well.”

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